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USA: Iowa Proposes ''Immigrant Enterprise Zones''

by Frank TrejoDallas Morning News
July 30th, 2000

DES MOINES, Iowa -- Bucolic Iowa seems like an unlikely destination for foreigners.

Not only is the state's population more than 95 percent white, this also is the place where anti-immigrant ads ran earlier this year during the presidential caucuses. There have been at least two unsuccessful efforts to enact English-only state laws, and some lawmakers have tried to find ways for local law enforcement to work more closely with federal immigration officials.

That's why a recent recommendation by the state's Strategic Planning Council has drawn so much attention. The panel wants Iowa to be designated an "immigration enterprise zone" so the state could seek exemptions from federal immigration quotas, making it easier for people to move to Iowa and work there.

Gov. Tom Vilsack, Iowa's first Democratic governor in 30 years, appointed the council of 37 prominent Iowans. The panel spent more than a year studying the state's problems and demographic trends and projecting what needs to be done to make this a more viable and vibrant state.

Heading the list of eight goals in the initial draft report is one calling for the state to increase its population, estimated at 2.87 million in 1999, by 310,000 by 2010. The report states that while luring ex-Iowans and people from other states, Iowa needs to become a more attractive and welcoming place for immigrants. In addition to urging that officials seek to have Iowa declared an "immigration enterprise zone," the proposal calls for the opening of "diversity welcome centers."

The proposal has drawn praise, skepticism and outright scorn. Some immigrant advocacy groups expressed concern that the new proposal is aimed only at highly skilled workers. Others worry that it is only a way for employers to get more workers for less money.

'A ticking bomb'

But those who served on the planning council say their state's future literally depends on attracting more people, including immigrants.

"I would say to any Iowan who works at a place like John Deere, who doesn't want to work next to someone who doesn't look like him, that he better want to. Or he may find himself standing in the unemployment line," said Jerry Kelley, the mayor of Indianola, just south of Des Moines.

Mr. Kelley headed an all-important population subcommittee for the planning council. He said that after the group began looking at census data, demographic information and projections, "We discovered that there was a ticking bomb in the middle of Iowa."

David Oman, an AT&T executive who led the council that produced the report, described some of the data as disturbing and scary.

Among the findings:

  • The state has fewer residents than it did in 1980, when its population was 2.91 million.

  • There are 137,000 fewer school-age children today than in 1980.

  • People 65 and older make up 15 percent of Iowa's population. By 2020, they will account for 20 percent.

  • In addition to projections for lower tax revenues, if the trends continue, the state is almost certain to lose one of its five seats in the U.S. House by 2010.

Mr. Oman, Iowa state officials and others stressed that the immigration proposal is among several long-term proposals. Plans include developing ways to keep more graduating Iowans from leaving the state, diversifying the state's still-heavily agricultural economy with an eye to becoming more of a leader in biotechnology, and improving Internet and communication links throughout the state.

"The intent really was to grab the state by the lapels and ask Iowans to look at the reality and find ways to change that," said Mr. Oman, who is a Republican, indicating the initiative's bipartisan support. "We realized that if we didn't change anything, we would not see the kind of growth needed to sustain the quality of life we all want."

Lt. Gov. Sally Pederson put it more bluntly: "We don't have the luxury of staying the way we are."

"If none of these recommendations are followed, Iowa would still be a very different place 10 years from now," Ms. Pederson said. "We won't be the same in 10 years, no matter what."

Mr. Oman noted that Iowa has already begun to change. And immigrants are part of that change.

He mentioned, for example, that in the 1980s, about 15,000 Southeast Asian refugees were successfully resettled in the state. More recently, people fleeing conflicts in places such as Bosnia and the Sudan have found their way to Iowa.

And so have Hispanic immigrants.

Drawn by the lure of plentiful jobs, better pay and a good environment to raise their families, more Hispanics are making Iowa their home.

Officially, the U.S. census reported that about 32,000 Hispanics were living in Iowa in 1990, when the state's total population was 2.78 million. A 1998 census estimate put the number of Hispanics at nearly 57,000.

But Elizabeth Salinas Newby, who heads the state's division on Latino affairs, said even that might be too low. Based on the number of Hispanic children enrolled in schools throughout the state, Ms. Salinas Newby said some estimates place the number of Hispanics in Iowa closer to 73,000.

Ms. Salinas Newby said she is taking a wait-and-see attitude toward the Strategic Planning Council's proposal.

"For example, the term 'immigration enterprise zone,' what exactly that means, I don't think anyone really has a clue yet," Ms. Salinas Newby said. "And from what I see, these 'welcome centers' seem to be geared more to the higher-skilled immigrants, not those who are low-skilled but still needed."

'Many challenges'

Similar concerns were voiced by Sandra Snchez, director of the Immigrant Rights Project of the American Friends Service Committee in Iowa.

"In general, this proposal is a very positive vision. It is important that immigrant contributions be recognized," Ms. Snchez said. "But I believe the implementation of this proposal will present many challenges."

In particular, Ms. Snchez said, she is worried that immigrants and the organizations that historically have worked with them have been left out of any planning groups.

And, she noted, there have already been encounters between immigrants and local residents. Several meat processors or other large agri-business concerns have opened plants in rural Iowa communities. That has at times produced friction between local residents and Hispanic immigrants hired by the plants.

"People are now more sensitive to what having a meatpacking plant in their community means," Ms. Snchez said. "They now know, for example, that having a plant like this move into your community does not necessarily mean that all the jobs are going to local people."

This year, the Federation for American Immigration Reform, an organization based in Washington that favors greater immigration restrictions, sponsored advertisements in Iowa that featured what it called the negative impact of immigration on towns such as Storm Lake, a town of about 9,000 people in the northwest part of the state.

Dan Stein, executive director of the federation, said Storm Lake is a perfect example of what can happen when a big meatpacking plant opens in a community to import cheap labor.

Among the ills blamed on the plant and its immigrant hires were increased crime and economic decline.

After the ads ran, many town residents, including the mayor, were outraged, saying some of the scenes portrayed were not even photographed in their town.

But Mr. Stein claims his organization has strong support.

"We studied Iowa pretty closely when we were doing that ad campaign, and our poll found that 62 percent of overall voters favored greater [immigration] restrictions," Mr. Stein said.

He said that as far as he's concerned, the issue comes down to employers wanting to gain an advantage by having an abundant supply of low-educated and low-wage workers. He said he saw the Iowa 2010 proposal as an attempt to turn the state into "one big Storm Lake."

"Putting aside all eulogies for the benefits of diversity, there is no evidence that Iowa's economic prosperity is going to be built on the backs of low-wage immigrant labor," Mr. Stein said.

But Iowa officials who have been working on the plan reject the notion that their immigration effort is aimed solely at recruiting more low-skilled workers or conversely, more high-tech workers.

Mr. Oman, the planning council's chairman, noted that the effort to turn the state into a leader in biotechnology and improve its Internet and telecommunication industries means that high-tech, highly skilled workers would definitely be needed.

Indeed, the Des Moines Chamber of Commerce, recently traveled to Washington to lobby for legislation that would increase the number of high-tech H1-B visas allowed each year.

"We're talking about going after populations at all different income levels because that is what will be needed. A sound economy needs labor at all levels; everybody can't be a genetic scientist," he said.

And just what form the immigration portion of the council's plan takes has yet to be decided.

Exemptions from quotas

Generally, the council's draft report, expected to be finalized and sent to the governor by Labor Day, notes that by becoming an immigration enterprise zone, Iowa could seek exemptions from federal immigration quotas.

It urged the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service to promptly process immigrants relocating to Iowa. It also recommended looking at state laws and regulations to ensure they too provide a welcome to new residents, including making sure fair housing and wages rules are enforced.

The planning council also urged providing the necessary "social and political infrastructure to meet the needs of new populations" in communities where new immigrants are settling.

David Ochoa couldn't contain himself when he heard about the efforts.

He leapt out of his chair, clapped his hands and said in a mixture of English and Spanish: "Wow! Finally, it's about time."

"That's the kind of thing I have been looking for," said Mr. Ochoa, a native of Guatemala who moved to Iowa about five years ago to work for a meatpacking plant. "The kinds of obstacles and barriers we face, no one can even imagine."

Mr. Ochoa lives in the small town of Perry, population about 7,000, northwest of Des Moines. He now works for a company that manufactures car-wash equipment, but he still feels a close bond to the workers at the plant that brought him to the Midwest.

Like many Hispanic immigrants in Iowa, Mr. Ochoa first worked in other states. He arrived in California and spent several years in Rhode Island.

"When I first got here, I saw a lot of racism. In many respects, people still see us as if we're from another planet or something," he said. "But the thing is, we have certain responsibilities we too need to learn and exercise in order to fit in, and not all of us do that."

The driving issue

Mr. Ochoa said he knows very specific ways in which the state of Iowa could make itself more welcoming for immigrants such as him. First, he said, the state should stop requiring legal immigration status for people trying to obtain a driver's license.

"There are some states where one can go to the driver's license bureau and get one by presenting papers such as a Mexican passport," he said. "But here, we need to prove we are legal, and many are not, so they go without a driver's license, and that means they also go without car insurance."

Li Zhou, a native of mainland China, has been in Iowa since 1996 when she arrived to study at Iowa State University.

Ms. Zhou, 30, recently graduated with a master's degree in civil engineering. She works for a company under contract for the state department of transportation and is designing a bridge on Interstate 235 in Des Moines.

Her biggest concern is that she can only extend the H1-B visa under which she is working until 2006. She has started the paperwork to become a legal permanent resident, but the INS backlog is so huge that she fears her work visa may expire before her green card is issued.

"Also, in Iowa, because there are not many immigrants, most employers don't have any idea of how immigration laws work, so some people don't want anything to do with someone who has an H1-B visa or even a green card. I think most employers should have better education about this," Ms. Zhou said.

This is especially important, she said, because so many immigrants find Iowa such a great place to live.

Just ask Antonio Zarete, 52, who has lived in the United States for almost 30 years. He had been living in central California, working mostly as a farmworker, but he came to Iowa about eight months ago.

"What I have found here is like something out of a dream," he said. "Everything is so beautiful and peaceful, that it is the perfect place for my family."

He works cleaning office buildings.

"This is a state where it never even crossed my mind that I would want to live here," said the native of the Mexican state of Michoacn. "One day, like everybody else, I would like to return home, but for right now, I'm very comfortable here."

Sonia Sandoval, 40, says there is nothing difficult about living in Iowa, not the harsh winters nor the relatively few Spanish-speaking residents.

Ms. Sandoval is originally from El Salvador but has lived in the United States for about 12 years, the last five in Iowa.

She, too, works as an office cleaner.

"It is very simple: We like it here because of the work. As long as you have a job and are healthy, nothing else really matters," she said.

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